Tag Archives: Chaos Anarchism

Is Anarchism collectivism or individualism? The answer is neither, and both.

A beautiful ant colony on College Campus in Mu...
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The latest post from Kevin Carson, while very good on its own as always, just introduced me to a term I’d never head before: Stigmergy. And reading about it, as trite and annoying as it may be, made me want to declare: THIS.

This seems to fit in perfectly with my understanding of how an anarchist society might develop around chaotic principles and emergent order. I always understood however that such a society would include both strong individualism and powerful collective action. However those terms are usually demonized or assaulted by statists and propertarians respectively and you end up with endless ad hominems and misunderstanding (“LOL isn’t Libertarian Socialism an oxymoron LOL”) which make us lose endless time trying to unschool people out of.

It’s very good to know that there’s a term which precicely describes how an anarchist organization would look like and does not imply strawmen of Bolsheviks or Randroids.

The more interesting thing is how such a term is primarily related at the moment to animal organizational forms, particularly those of insects such as ants and their swarm intelligence. And if one considers how ants are arguably the most productive and industrious species of the planet, it really paints some interesting possibilities in case a species which has far more power and intelligence in one unit than a whole ant colony (i.e. humans) embraces a stigmergic social organization.

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The Politics of Change

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Yesterday I discovered how the Starcraft reddit had implemented little icons next to each user’s name (of those that wanted it) which could display which faction they belonged to. I found the idea cute and an interesting way to add some more character into the discussion. I thought that something similar would be a nice addition to the /r/anarchism so I experimented a bit and then implemented it to see what others thought about it.

Initially I opened a thread announcing it. Everyone could request any icon they wished for among the available options. I figured that if people don’t want one, they can simply ignore it and those who do can get one. If very few got a star, the change would be practically invisible. If many wanted one, then it would show that it was indeed a good option to have.

I expected some people not to like it and I just assumed that if they had a good argument against it, a democratic vote would decide if people agreed with them to take the stylesheet change down or keep it up. I did not expect to be called a dictator…

I won’t respond to the shallow baiting some are all too eager to fling around when things don’t go their way (read: when the community does not back them up) but I thought it would be useful to explain why I act the way I do, why this is beneficial and why the alternative is not a good idea.

Change Boldly, Reverse Democratically.

My theory on changes is that any of them that are opt-in and easy to reverse do not need democratic consensus to be attempted. I get my idea from Wikipedia and the brilliant way it’s worked for that until now where it urges people to be bold in their changes since any mistake can be easily fixed and/or reversed when needed and the damage should be non-existent until it is. Much like that, I believe that any change in society that affects only those who decide to follow it, does not have the capacity to cause immediate damage and can be reversed easily should it be requested, should be tried boldly.

This usually affect the most novel and the most interesting ideas. Being for opt-in ideas, it practically limits this practice to those ideas that enhance individualism rather than modify the collective as a whole. In the end, it affects those ideas which are the most likely to be opposed by conservative minds and those ideas who are very likely to be rejected by those who have not experienced them.

This is important to clarify because it’s these ideas that not only make a society or community more interesting and colourful, but are the ones that promote individualism, creativity and serve as the “beachhead” and basis for others to build upon them. It is exactly those ideas which change the chaotic environment in unexpected ways and allow a new and better emergent order. The throttling of those ideas would be disastrous for the cultural health of a community.

To give you real life example of such ideas, think of creativity and innovation. For example, a person designing a new style of clothing, or an engineer designing a revolutionary technology like the steam engine or the TCP/IP protocol, or even a person who starts living in a completely novel lifestyle. Certainly nobody would request that those people refrain from introducing such changes until a consensus has been reached in society. Those changes affect the individual first and foremost and only those who want them would embrace them.

And yet, that those changes would affect the environment and the society as a whole is certain. Some will do it far more than others but everything that affects individuals – from fashion, to lifestyle to technology – can in turn change the society once a critical mass of individuals start following it. One can simply see how for example, the Internet, which is a completely opt-in technology, has shaped and continues to shape the face of our global society in it short existence. And the more people that start to use it, the more powerful it becomes to perform this change. Mannerisms, clothes, lifestyle practices etc also have the same possibilities which can easily be seen in our history.

Is this an argument to request consensus decision before those are introduced? If this was an anarchist society and a technology like the early Internet was developed, do you think it would be a good idea to block it until a democratic vote was taken on it? Those enthusiasts old enough to remember those early days will certainly remember the rampart scaremongering surrounding it during those times. You could find practically weekly a columnist from one traditional newspaper or another warning us of all the horrible consequences it would have when it became widespread. I don’t think any of them came even closer to materializing. Instead, new ways of use were discovered which further changed the way it was used in ways that nobody could even imagine.

Think of Twitter for example. At the early ages of the internet, it couldn’t be even imagined. When it was first introduced, it was widely dismissed and/or assaulted by a vocal minority (among the majority who didn’t use it) that was nevertheless bigger than the majority which found it exciting and interesting. If one would have a democratic vote at that point, at the point of introduction, twitter would not exist today. The majority who was hostile to it was simply larger than the bleeding edge minority that wanted to try it. This is a fact of reality. The conservative vocal minority will always be larger at the start-of-life of a particular innovation, than the progressive vocal minority who wants to use it.

Twitter, much like the internet persisted. Slowly,the progressive minority found more and more novel ways to use it, the membership of Twitter increased and a critical mass was reached. A critical mass which, while still a minority among Internet users, has a profound and significant effect on society. Twitter is starting to have a real societal effect in the way people communicate. From the political campaigns, to advertising, to reactionary communications among anarchists during riots!

Think: Nobody would have even thought this was possible until it happened naturally. Until order emerged out of chaos.

Nobody could argue that Twitter did not have a profound effect on the community it was introduced into (The Internet community first, the greater society second). And yet, nobody but the very misguided would suggest that it was a mistake that Twitter was not introduced consensually. Twitter was introduced boldly but as an opt-in method. People who wanted it can use it and the success of it as a service would depend on those opting-in. That means, that if it was discovered that it had a harmful effect, it would eventually change or die a natural death as people stopped using it and were not replaced. This is the first security valve that exist for all the bold opt-in changes.

The second one does not exist in all societies but the truly democratic ones. The option for a community to convene and decide if they wish to ban a particular change that is having a harmful effect on them. This is however the nuclear option and one which can have as much a harmful effect on creative changes as the ones I mentioned above, as voting before each change. If a democratic vote it convened at the early life of a change, the vocal conservative minority will once again out-weight the vocal progressive minority which will not have had a chance to grow by showing the beneficial effects of the change.

This democratic choice needs to be taken not just when a change has been introduced but when the practice of it has empirically and materially had a harmful effect. It needs to be base on evidence, on balancing the good against the bad and not scaremongering. It requires thus enough of a trial time on any change to allow it to be judged in practice. However, unlike a market economy or a dictatorship, this “nuclear option” can be a life-saviour on a technology which is indeed harmful due to its externalities. And while some will certainly complain about the loss of freedom of banning something which a minority might still want, the luxuries of the few should never out-weight the damage done to the many.

This is primarily why bold changes need to be easily reversible. While I’m all for such modifications, I would never dream of instituting a change that cannot be reversed or that has such likelihood of further implications that make it irreversible. My change on /r/anarchism’s stylesheet for example can be removed in 3 clicks. However when I say “implications” this obviously does not include democratic support for a good idea, as some have implied. Such a support does not mean that a change is technically irreversible but rather that people wish for it to stay. A technical implication would rather be something like digging an oil rig in the sea when knowing that that there’s a change for it to explode and pollute the surrounding environment catastrophically. In short, a change which cannot be reversed given democratic opposition.

When such reversibility is existent, being bold is not an issue. Any of us can make mistakes or miss some consequence that emerges later on and being able to quickly revert things to the way they were is the fallback solution to a bold change that did not work as intended. However, like before, the harmful effect needs to be existent and not theoretical. Scaremongering will not do. Such harmful effects will then convince the community to oppose it democratically and reverse it or modify it so as to avoid those effects. No real argument will be required.

Furthermore, bold changes can be done on top of bold changes to as to improve on them and give more options. This does not include the bold change of reversing them without them having a chance to be trialed. Say for example that the stylesheet change I did ended up looking fugly (and indeed my initial change was also opposed exactly for this point by some). While one change is for it to be reversed, another one which is also quicker (as it would not require a democratic vote) and better would be to make it nicer. And indeed this is what another mod did, by replacing the big flags I used with small stylish stars. Not only was he bold in turn, but in a future vote we can have three options rather than just two. Flags, Stars or Removal.

Isn’t this dictatorship?

One thing that some anarchists were very eager to throw against me was the accusation of acting like a dictator to the subreddit. They claim that because I acted without consent, I forced everyone to accept my change. But this should be fairly easy to see why it’s false.

First of all, dictators don’t make their choices opt-in. They force them on the society at large because they want them to happen. Had dictators made unpopular decisions as opt-in, they would have never had any effect as people would simply ignore them. This is why dictators and oligarchies end up dragging the unwilling populace behind their “visions”.

On one hand, the ease by which such visions can be attempted is a particular benefit for a dictatorship, allowing a progressive dictator to make rapid changes. This is naturally outweighted by all the bad things that follow a dictatorship, especially the inability to reverse a bad decision or even opt-out of it. The trick to is to keep the good (easy progressive changes) and discard the bad (not being able to reverse bad ones, among everything else). This is what bold changes attempt to achieve.

A dictators decision would not be reversible given democratic opposition. The people accusing me of acting like one, take the considerable support my idea has had and claim that because they can now not reverse the change as people like it, it might as well have been a dictatorial edict. But the little option that the idea is only irreversible because people want it makes all the difference in the world. It means that when and if harmful effects are discovered from it, it can still be removed or fixed. You do not have such an option with a dictatorial edict. In fact, especially because that was the idea of the supreme ruler, it’s very unlikely that he would change it even when harmful effects are obvious, simply because of personal pride.

I consider such accusation to be nothing more than baiting. Trying to shame me with a label which does not fit, just because they know anarchist abhor this accusation and are especially sensitive to it. IMO The accusation itself is shameful to those making it.

I was planning on writing about the issues that will occur if we require consensus before every change but I notice that this post is already getting quite long so instead I’m going to close this post now and write about the harmful effects of democratic fetishism in a future post.

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Is Anarchism a form of social Darwinism?

Chaos
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I can foresee that a common criticism against my explanation of how an anarchist society would look like, will be to compare it to social Darwinism. That I’m suggesting that we let society run along and let natural selection choose who gets to live and prosper. One might bring forth the counter example of the “Free Markets” and how letting them run unmanaged and unhindered (as their proponents suggest) has ended up with disastrous results.

But I’m not suggesting anything like that. I have made it very clear that I put far more weight to the utilitarian result of the simple rules we choose for the basis of our society. In short, the end result needs to be the maximization of all human happiness and the society we try to create is simply the means to this. This is very far from the idea that we should choose a set of rules and stick to them, come what may.

In fact this is why the free markets fail so miserably. The central idea of the “free market” is similar to mine in the sense that they suggest that we should stick to some simple rules and let the rest fall in place around them. Those rules are a combination of respect for private property, respect for contractual agreements, and non-aggression. Proponents of such combinations claim follow two kind of argumentative paths. Either that the principles of a free market are a natural law or that they bring a utilitarian result in regards to more freedom (which we assume would make people happier).

But none of these can be sufficiently proven. It’s impossible to display the existence of this “Natural Law” as it’s usually based either on religious underpinnings or personal delusions and it’s impossible to display the utilitarian results of free market principles because of the chaos theory. The best one can predict about a future free market society is that it will have those principles. It will respect PP, contracts and non-aggression.

But such a society could range from a human paradise of countless small farmers/artisans in an egalitarian formation, to a dystopia of mega-corporations controlling all the resource and 99% of humans being subsistence wage-slaves with no rights except the right to serve a boss. This is more problematic when seen through an utilitarian perspective (for freedom) because some of the principles can easily lead to the antithesis of freedom, such as the loss of freedom one has while working for a boss or the capacity to engage in slave-contracts. The fact that whenever a laissez-faire conception was attempted it ended up in huge human misery only serves to question their capacity to achieve their ideal goal.

However, what I am proposing is not simply to choose some rules that I claim will lead to a better result but rather to choose rules that tautologically will lead to that result. A society based on democratic values will be democratic. A society based on possessive ownership will be possessive and so on. What this means is that if there is a value that we believe should exist in a future society, we should be making that value a core rule to be espoused, promoted and defended by itself. Not as a possible result of some other value. For example: to suggest we all follow “sticky” ownership rules because it will lead to freedom of speech is misguided. It will serve us far better to follow freedom of speech itself because only then will we be sure that it will lead to a society which values freedom of speech.

Furthermore, I’m not even suggesting we select some concepts monolithically. I do not say we should choose those values and also a value to never change them. As I explained in my previous post, it might well be the case that at some indefinite point in the future, Anarchism will be sub-optimal itself. I cannot even imagine such a scenario but I can accept the possibility. Therefore, we should always be open to changing our core ruleset when the situation requires it and this should be done in the same way as before: Directly embrace the value that we would like to have in the future.

This is another way by which anarchism differs from social Darwinism and free markets, which say that the values themselves should never be changed and we should simply let societal evolution and natural selection to take their toll. But this is simply giving up one of the most basic and useful features of humans: Our ability to change our environment (which includes societal rules) as a means of adaptation. Therefore it’s not surprising that social Darwinism is such an utter failure in regards to human happiness.

In short, Anarchism or at least the Chaotic conception of Anarchism (Chaos Anarchism? Chanarchism?) that I promote, is not a form of social Darwinism because we control our environment instead of us being controlled by it.

I can foresee that a common criticism against my explanation of how an anarchist society would look like, will be to compare it to social Darwinism. That I’m suggesting that we let society run along and let natural selection choose who gets to live and prosper. One might bring forth the counter example of the “Free Markets” and how letting them run unmanaged and unhindered (as their proponents suggest) has ended up with disastrous results.

But I’m not suggesting anything like that. I have made it very clear that I put far more weight to the utilitarian result of the simple rules we choose for the basis of our society. In short, the end result needs to be the maximization of all human happiness and the society we try to create is simply the means to this. This is very far from the idea that we should choose a set of rules and stick to them, come what may.

In fact this is why the free markets fail so miserably. The central idea of the “free market” is similar to mine in the sense that they suggest that we should stick to some simple rules and let the rest fall in place around them. Those rules are a combination of respect for private property, respect for contractual agreements, and non-aggression. Proponents of such combinations claim follow two kind of argumentative paths. Either that the principles of a free market are a natural law or that they bring a utilitarian result in regards to more freedom (which we assume would make people happier).

But none of these can be sufficiently proven. It’s impossible to display the existence of this “Natural Law” as it’s usually based either on religious underpinnings or personal delusions and it’s impossible to display the utilitarian results of free market principles because of the chaos theory. The best one can predict about a future free market society is that it will have those principles. It will respect PP, contracts and non-aggression.

But such a society could range from a human paradise of countless small farmers/artisans in an egalitarian formation, to a dystopia of mega-corporations controlling all the resource and 99% of humans being subsistence wage-slaves with no rights except the right to serve as boss. This is more problematic when seen through an utilitarian perspective (for freedom) because some of the principles can easily lead to the antithesis of freedom, such as the loss of freedom one has while working for a boss or the capacity to engage in slave-contracts. The fact that whenever a laissez-faire conception was attempted it ended up in huge human misery only serves to question their capacity to achieve their ideal goal.

However, what I am proposing is not

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What would an Anarchist society look like?

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If there one question that gets asked ridiculously often to anarchists is to describe how the future society would look like, how would an anarchistic world function. Any answer given to this question can but only raise more questions and open more venues for criticism as any system described can only be simplistic and full of conceptual holes. Therefore I dislike this question with a passion, as not only it is commonly used as a basis for dismissal of anarchism without bothering to look any deeper but also misses the greater point that anarchism is about the process rather than the end result.

However today I had a small epiphany on this topic while watching the excellent BBC documentary The Secret Life of Chaos. At some point in the film, Prof. Al Khalili made the point that while migrating birds have no leaders and no complex system of organization or rules to guide their flights, their flocks nevertheless not only manage to achieve great feats such as flying over whole continents but also display stunning patterns of flight formations, surprisingly suitable for their purpose (such as flying in a V-shape formation) or simply beautiful, while managing to avoid even colliding with each other.

What surprised me about this statement is how incredibly similar this type of organization sounds to an anarchist society. A society which has no leaders and no complex rules and yet manages to function and even create a very complex societal organization and order which serves to maximize the happiness of every human within it. The complexity of it arises, not despite the simple rules underlying the system but because of them and the existence of chaos. In short because of the natural complexity that arises when one combines simple rules with feedback.

And human societies, if anything, are nothing but feedback.

And this, I realized, is why one can never describe an anarchistic society. The simple fact of humans starting to follow simple  anarchistic rules will create such levels of complexity and radical, strange and wonderful patterns and formations of social organization, that any prediction one of us makes now can only end up horribly wrong. In fact, the only accurate prediction one can make about a system that follows a certain set of rules within a chaotic environment is…that the system will follow those rules. Nothing else. You cannot predict the end result any more than one can predict the shape a flock of birds will take or how a certain pattern will look like when zooming 10x in a Mandelbrot set, while starting at a random location.

What does this mean? That any targets we set for a future society, such as the end of crime or having conquered the galaxy with billions of human colonies is impossible to predict with any certainty. No matter the system we setup to achieve this, because the smallest changes in our environment and behaviour will radically change what we expect. Just look at how science fiction looked even a mere 100 years ago (not to mention even longer) and you will see how little resemblance it has to our world. In fact, even looking at popular conceptions of the future, as crystalized in various movies produced a mere 30 years ago we can see that most of them are way off base. Personally, I’m still waiting for the flying cars.

And yet, even 30 years ago, nobody could even imagine something like the internet and how it would completely revolutionize our whole way of thinking and interacting with each other.

And yet, when one simple technological innovation completely re-shapes significant parts whole world in one short generation, you ask us to describe how an anarchist society, which would require a whole change of social relations, not to mention technology and lifestyle – in the face of rapid climate change and disentanglement from oil – would look like?! This is simply impossible.

However we can predict one thing: An Anarchy, that is, a society where humans individually follow and promote anarchist principles will…have anarchist principles. Simple nü?

So let me clarify this. One of the most fundamental anarchist principles is true democracy; the very simple concept that the power of one to affect a decision should be directly proportional to how much that decision affects them. As far as social rules go, this is as simple as “One person – One vote” or “The King’s choice is infallible”. We cannot remotely predict how a society based on this rule will look like any more than classical Greek democrats could ever foresee the US political system. What we can predict though is that the society will at its core allow people to have a truly democratic voice in their lives and thus greater control. Such a society would be definition need to have all hierarchies abolished (and that includes for example prison and business hierarchies) and will not have any  prohibition on recreational drugs of any sort.

The rule is simple but the society that will form around it will be incredibly complex and impossible to predict.

This, I realize, is the only way to think about societal change. There is no point making utopian constructions in one’s head about how a future society must function for all humans to be happy, as this is moored in current social relations and current technological levels. This is the fatal flaw all such ideas had, from communist Utopias to “anarcho”-capitalist conceptions of freed markets and competing defence organizations. They assume a static world and a have a distinctly “Newtonian” understanding of social sciences. They assume that they have discovered the perfect equation which will bring about the perfect society…if only humans were smart enough to follow it to the letter.

But no matter how smart humans are the end result predicted is impossible. Not only because of minor, minuscule changes in the system (not to speak of major changes such as a new revolutionary technology being innovated), but fundamentally because of feedback, the end utopia will never come to be. All one will end up with is a vague trace of the original idea, somewhere in the developing society. Much like someone, paying very close attention, might discern the flame of a candle as it is moved within a video-feedback system.

In fact, our current society is nothing more than the end result of humans following a host of other basic rules of organization such as respect of free speech, respect for private property, promotion of classical freedom (i.e. your rights end where my rights begin), “one person-one vote”, secularism, gender and race equality, promotion of and respect for the scientific method and many others1. However, society did not change overnight, we did not move from feudalism to capitalism in one month, nor did we embrace modern science in a few years. It took centuries for those ideas to become mainstream because of the societal evolution. And those ideas only even got a hold in the first place because of the same evolution that came before them. Because of the way the system ended up forming from the ideas that were dominant in the past. And the funny thing is that those ideas might have been the complete opposite of what they produced.

What this means is that while we may have reached where we are because of the ideals that came before us, the capitalist mode of production which came after feudalism and slavery, which came after theocracy which came after imperialism and so on, we are still capable of changing where we are headed by the simple act of embracing different ideals. We will not know how exactly we will turn out, but we will know that we’ll have those ideas in action2 and thus can rule at least the things out that conflict with them.

In the end, the order of human societies are the complex result of simple rules, much like chaos theory predicts. However there is a factor which is absent from every other chaotic system we see around us. A simple detail which gives a whole new dimension of complexity to the evolutionary progress:

Humans can modify their own environment.

This simple fact I have come to realize is surprisingly important. Whereas every other organism (or simple pattern) can only adapt to  how the environment around it changes and will only slowly change its basic rules as a result of natural selection, humans can to a large extent modify both their behaviour and their social rules instantly (in an evolutionary timescale) by using their primary trait, their reason, to discover a better optimal path than the one they were following until then. This means that they can follow a particular rule-set until it stalls or it becomes obvious that it is detrimental and then either modify their environment until this is not the case anymore, or simply discard their rule set for a superior one3

Looking back at human history from this perspective, it’s impossible to miss this process. Humans adapted to their environment by using a specific system of social organization and production. When their environment changed (say by the introduction of a new technology or resource) they changed then either or both of them accordingly. Thus the slavery as a mode of production led to Imperialism (as well as, surprisingly, Democracy in classical Greece – remember the things we can’t predict?). The discovery of the steam engine and oil and the general industrial revolution led to the widespread abolition of slavery in favour of wage-slavery.All these things happened not because of fate, or the will of a creator and whatnot, but because of simple rules and material changes and feedback which always worked mindlessly to create the best combination of social organization given the existing environment for the maximal human spread.

And this is in fact the crux of the cookie. The current socioeconomic framework is not optimal anymore. The environment has changed far too much since the dawn of capitalism. Not only has the technological level broken the barriers of the system and thus made the ground fertile for different organizations (much like the industrial revolution made slavery sub-optimal) but the way the environment changes because of the system (such as global climate change and peak oil) has made the current one not only simply detrimental but outright destructive for the evolutionary success of humans (i.e. our continued existence as a species).

And this is where Anarchism comes in. I can only but consider it but the latest of an human societal recalibration required to work with the current and changing environment. It is no wonder than the first flickers of the idea occurred just as the capitalist system completed its dominance as the chosen method of production. It’s as if human history cunningly winks at us, while it hints to what is to follow. In fact, I consider it even more noteworthy that anarchist theorists had intuitively grasped the chaotic nature of social change approximately half a century before Turing made his breakthrough research into biological patterns. If there’s one thing that has always been a primary concept behind the anarchist movement is how it gives far more weight to the means to achieve change than it does to the ends.  For me at least, the more I learn, the more this fact is  solidified and the current post is only the latest of such knowledge.

Is Anarchism (or Marx’s “Pure Communism) to be the last sociopolitical stage? I used to think so but now, highly doubt it. As much as we can’t even remotely predict the future, so can we not predict the circumstances that might make Anarchism obsolete. Perhaps it will be enough to save us from annihilation by our own hands but not enough to survive contact with Alien races. Who knows? As much as Adam Smith could not even imagine a system like Anarchism when the Free Markets he suggested was itself a radical concept, so can I not even imagine what could possibly follow Anarchism.

But what I do know, is that no anarchist will be ever be able to accurately describe what Anarchy will look like. Only that like a flock of birds, it will be complex in its simplicity.

Anarchy is Order.

And Order comes from Chaos…

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  1. If you thought it’s merely very difficult to predict a future society based on only 1 rule, I want to see you juggle 5 or 10 []
  2. that is, unless there are no conflicting ideals as well. In fact, this is why we cannot have a free society or even one that is simply gender or race egalitarian. Those conflict with respect for private property and respect for authority which breeds hierarchies and thus perpetuates patriarchy minority oppression []
  3. Of course, by going one level of abstraction back, this human ability to modify their environment and behaviour is only the result of evolution again, which has granted the humans the best capacity to expand their number given the nature of the planet and the universe as a whole []